This year at San Diego Comic Con the Magic the Gathering Panel had some pretty big reveals and new information. Right from the start they dropped the bombshell that Jace, the Mind Sculptor will be included in the next From the Vault release. That is a story for another day, so maybe I’ll talk about that in a future article. The thing I was most happy to see though was the refocus on Top Down Design. Theros is the next set to hit this fall, and the concept of Top Down Design based on Greek Mythology is very much the Mission Statement of this set.
Top Down Design is the idea of designing Magic Cards or even sets with a high concept or theme in mind and then creating cards that fit those concepts and flavor. The best and most recent example of this is Innistrad. Wizards decided to make a set based around the concept of Gothic Horror. The set had no real gimmicks. Innistrad was not returning to a Plane that Magic Players wanted to revisit, it didn’t have a limited print run, and it didn’t reprint some super powerful $100 card. It was just strong design based around a concept that was fun. Prior to that we had seen many sets that felt like they were based more around the mechanics of the cards or an ambiguous story line that was hard to relate to unless you were a fan of the novels. The new way of thinking led to record breaking sales and broader interest in the game, right? Well hold on a second — was this really a new way of thinking or did developers just rekindle what made Magic great to begin with? Where did the idea of top down design come from?
When Richard Garfield decided he wanted to make a quick Fantasy-based card game to play with his friends in between games of Dungeons and Dragons he didn’t have anything to base it on other than the trope of Fantasy. He was not able to examine other Trading Card Games to see how they did it since there were none. Richard was about to become the first Magic Designer and he was about to use the concept of Top Down Design to give us his first Magic Set, Alpha/Beta/Unlimited. Let’s take closer look at some of the examples from this first set.
Alright, might as well start at the top. We all know that Moxen speed up the game. We all know that they are super powerful cards which basically let you get a huge resource advantage over your opponent. We all know that they cost a fortune now if you want to obtain one. Many consider them mistakes while others feel that the existence of this type of card is what helped ignite the hype and chatter around the game. The simple truth is that Richard was not thinking of any of that when he designed a Mox. He was simply thinking that in many Fantasy stories there are small objects that give the hero great power. He wanted cards that show off that fantasy trope of magical items of power.
This has always been one of my favorite Magic Cards, not because it is necessarily powerful or unusual but simply because the flavor makes so much sense. What would an Assassin do? Well, kill other creatures of course. This makes perfect sense. If a creature has been distracted (“tapped”) the Assassin sneaks in and kills it. This is maybe the textbook example of top down design. It’s simple and intuitive. Players know exactly what an Assassin would do and how the card mechanic should work.
Here is White’s entry. If you were to brainstorm fantasy tropes it probably wouldn’t take you long to get to things like Knights and Castles. So what does a Castle do? It is created for protection. In this design the Castle actually increases each of the creature’s defensive strength but only as long as they are in the castle “not attacking”. This is yet another simple and intuitive concept that makes the game fun and gives new players a sense of understanding.
This card is designed just the way you would think invisibility should work. The creature that is invisible can sneak past all the other creatures. The Cherry on top here though is the fact that invisibility can’t help you get past a wall. That extra little bit of flavor is the type of thing that captures players’ imaginations and helps the game feel more tactile.
In this green example we see another basic trope. This is the idea that a magical spring of water can give things such as life or youth. Here the player is able to directly interact with this spring to regain life points. This is a very simple design but goes to show that sometimes the simplest designs can help convey the message the best.
OK, it would have been easy to just say Shivan Dragon here and call it a day. It’s a Dragon, it breaths fire, it flies…Save and Print. The reason I picked Stone Giant was mostly due to the subtlety of the design. Here you have a creature that is a giant and he can tap to give another smaller creature flying but that creature dies at the end of the turn. Wait a minute; did that Giant just throw my other creature into the air? This is one of those Aha moments that makes a game fun. It might not jump out at you but when a player discovers the flavor here it is fun and has that Easter Egg feel to it.
After Unlimited the concept of Top Down Design was very apparent in most of the expansions that occurred early in Magic’s development. Arabian Nights, Legends, The Dark, and Fallen Empires may house some of the best examples of Top Down Design. Then for many years we saw a shift in design. Sets became driven by what mechanics they wanted to add to the game that year or by storylines within the game itself. In some ways during that time the game lost something: Some of its fun, some of its surprise, and some of its power to bring in new players. When Magic 2010 was released there was a noticeable shift to use more Top Down Design in the core set. Designers were given a unique opportunity since the Core set began featuring new cards that year. Shortly after we saw the huge success of Top Down Design in Innistrad and I can’t wait to see how it evolves in Theros. I think this will be a trend we will continue to see going forward in set design simply because it works but let’s all appreciate the fact that Wizards is not trying something new here. Instead they are getting back to the roots of what made Magic a great game to begin with.